Courts, Congress and Universities Consider How to Change Mountaintop Removal Policies

Story by Bill Kovarik

The fight over mountaintop removal coal mining accelerated this spring, with action in the courts, the regulatory agencies, Congress and universities. For the first time in almost a decade, environmentalists appear to be winning.

Courts gave the mining industry one initial victory in mid-February, when the pro-business U.S. 4th District court decided that the Corps of Engineers has authority to issue permits without more extensive review. But in March, another federal court overturned the Corps’ blanket national approach to mountaintop removal mining permits – a victory for the environment. “It’s devastating,” lamented West Virginia Coal Association President Bill Raney, claiming that the hold-up of permits pending environmental review would result in the loss of jobs.

Around the same time, the Environmental Protection Agency told the Corps that it wanted to review all new mountaintop removal mining permits – in effect, slowing down the permit process. Mining industry groups and pro-mining politicians insisted on a series of meetings with President Obama’s new EPA administrator, Lisa Jackson, vainly hoping that she would come around to their point of view.

At the same time, the Corps balked at EPA’s oversight and, taking sides with the mining industry, began issuing new MTR permits. In response, the Obama administration announced it will replace the Bush administration head of the Corps and nominated Jo-Ellen Darcy, formerly Senior Environmental Advisor to the U.S. Senate Committee on Finance. Darcy is expected to create a “greener Corps” and is unlikely to support mountaintop removal.

On Capitol Hill, bipartisan legislation to ban the dumping of mine waste into streams, which would dramatically curb if not put an end to mountaintop removal mining, is moving forward. On the House side, 141 cosponsors (by press time) have signed on to the Clean Water Protection Act (H.R. 1310). On the Senate side, the Appalachia Restoration Act (S. 696) was introduced by Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD).

Meanwhile, the University of Santa Clara decided to divest its stock in Massey Energy Co. this March. “This investment had been made unknowingly and it contradicted our ethical guidelines for investment,” said the university’s president, Michael Engh, S.J. “Once aware of this error, we divested.” Concern for union workers and families is another moral issue for the university, said Wess Harris, a West Virginia environmental and union advocate. Other Catholic universities are now also considering divestment, Harris said.

In response to events this spring, the National Mining Association and other coal mining organizations went on the public relations offensive, and created a web site ( The group claims that 100,000 jobs are at stake, although in fact only 14,000 surface miners are employed in Appalachia. “We are not burying miles and miles of rivers and creeks beneath mountains of dirt,” the group claims — only a few “dry ditches.”

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